Friday, July 12, 2024

BTRTN: The Polling Verdict on Biden

Tom assesses the post-debate polling environment for Biden.

A few days after the June 27 debate, as many rushed to judgment on whether or not Biden should stay in the race, I offered this suggestion:

Before making any decisions, the Biden team and anyone in a position to influence its thinking must first look at the impact of the debate on Biden’s approval rating and the national election polls (both the so-called “two way” polls which pit Biden just against Trump and the “five-way” polls which include the minor candidates Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Jill Stein and Cornel West).  If Biden has taken a substantial blow – say, a five-point or more drop in his approval rating, from the pre-debate level of roughly 40% to 35% or lower, and the gap with Trump widens to five points or more, our view is that Biden should step down.  If the effect is more marginal, a point or two, he can continue his quest to write off the debate as a bad night, akin to those suffered by Reagan and Obama in their first reelection debates and move on.

Much has happened that has further shaped the view of Biden's fitness for office since the debate, and not much of it has been helpful to Biden's case.  Journalists have run stories that generally indicate that, within the White House, Biden has been widely viewed as in decline.  Biden appeared vigorous in various post-debate rallies but was barely adequate in an unscripted 18-minute interview (surprisingly short in and of itself) with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News.  Biden said in another interview that he was “proud to be, as I said the first vice president, the first Black woman served with a Black president.”  Another clip showed him apparently “frozen” at a Juneteenth celebration.  George Clooney wrote in an editorial that he believed that Biden had slipped dramatically, and that the Biden he watched at the debate was the same Biden he had seen at a major fundraiser just a month before, far from his 2010 and even 2020 self.  All of these revelations have confirmed the swirling narrative that Biden is not up to the campaign and certainly not for four more years. 

As for the polls, they have been, in our view, bad for Biden, though perhaps not completely disastrous.  And, of course, individual polls have varied enough to give everyone a particular poll to hang onto to support their perspective, although some of those defending Biden have taken the tack of dismissing the polls entirely.  And maybe we should.  While the polls are bad, the real issue is whether Biden is capable of winning given his obvious communication difficulties.

Let’s summarize the polling results.

·        In the two-way national polls, Trump was ahead in pre-debate June polls by a single point, 46/45.  Now Trump leads by roughly three points, 46/43.  Note that Trump has not advanced in these polls, but rather Biden has lost two points to the unspecified category.  A three-point gap is substantial, especially given that Biden actually has to lead in the national polls by 2-3 points for the race to be considered “even” because of the inherent GOP bias in the Electoral College..

·        In “five-way” national polls, Trump’s pre-debate lead was again a single point, 42/41, with the other candidates receiving 9% of the vote.  Trump’s post-debate lead is 4-5 points, 44/39, with the other candidates receiving 13% of the vote.  Clearly, having real choices matters, and that will certainly be the case come November.  Behind 4-5 points behind is an enormous gap to overcome.

·        Biden’s approval rating has dropped only a point or two, to 38%.  However, it is at a low for his presidency.

The debate has clearly been the most consequential “catalyst” to date in a race characterized by its static nature, with neither candidate able to forge a convincing lead.  Nothing has moved the needle as dramatically as the debate.  Based on the post-debate gap, Trump is now in a commanding position, particularly given the state of the all-important swing state polls.

There have been three pollsters who have done polling across multiple swing states.  Emerson and Remington showed similar results, more unfavorable to Biden than pre-debate polls, while Bloomberg was a mixed bag, showing, incongruously, Biden doing better in Wisconsin and Michigan than in pre-debate polls, but far worse in Pennsylvania, and about the same in the other four swing states (Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and North Carolina).  The Bloomberg poll is odd in two ways:  first, it strains credulity to think that Biden would actually improve his standing in any state post-debate, and second, it is also it is very odd that Pennsylvania would move in a different direction than in Michigan and Wisconsin.  Bloomberg looks to be the outlier among the three, with highly suspect results.

The chart below summarizes the polls, with the last two columns contrasting the averages with and without the Bloomberg numbers.  In comparing either column to the first "pre-debate" polling, clearly the race has taken a turn for the worse, with Biden weakening significantly in Pennsylvania (in all three polls), and also materially in Wisconsin, and, if one excludes Bloomberg, also in Michigan (and a bit in Arizona and Nevada). 









This is perilous for Biden.  Pre-debate he was already in difficult shape, with only one likely path to the 270 electoral votes he needs to win reelection:  winning Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.  If he won all three, as well as all the other “solid” or “likely” blue states, he would garner exactly 270 electoral votes, no more, no less, and squeak out a victory.  Before the debate he was arguably even in all three; but he now is facing the same kind of gap in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that he faces in the four southern and western states.  Those roughly five-point leads have proven quite difficult to dent over the last six months.

Accordingly, we have lowered the BTRTN odds of Biden winning reelection from about 50/50 (47%) to 31%.

Keep in mind that this is just a snapshot, not a prediction.  (There will be no predictions at BTRTN until the night before the election.)  But that 31% is indicative of where the race stands right now.  If the election were held tomorrow, Biden would very likely lose.

Part of that calculus is that while Biden’s path to 270, already narrow, is being squeezed, it is likely that his debate performance will bring more states into play, thereby expanding Trump’s own pathways to 270.  Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Maine and Virginia, all reliably blue states, could all achieve swing state status soon enough.

In addition, of course, a poor Biden showing in November will hurt the Democrats’ chances of holding the Senate or taking control of the House.  If Biden loses, then all the GOP has to do to take the Senate is  win West Virginia, which is a near certainty.  Even if Biden wins, the Democrats would still have to win all seven battleground Senate races to get to 50 seats and control; all seven are current Democratic seats.  The GOP has zero vulnerable Senate seats, unless you count Texas or Florida (as of now, I don’t).  We have the odds of the Democrats holding the Senate at a mere 12%.

The problem with the Biden campaign is that even before the debate, he was running out of “catalysts” to propel him ahead of Trump.  Gaza shows no sign of peace; with inflation sticky at 3%, the Fed may, at most, do one rate cut in 2024; and one can hardly anticipate a Biden-led convention to provide a sizable bump.  Indeed, it was that thinking that probably led the Biden campaign team to seek an early debate, to try to shake up the race before it ossified even further.  Sure, four months is a long time, but in a race that has shown little change -- even in the face of seismic events like the Trump “hush money” conviction and a remarkable string of conservative Supreme Court rulings -- at some point you begin to wonder how it changes.  Hence the thought to call for a debate, which Trump eagerly accepted.

This “debate now” strategy, of course, rather spectacularly backfired.  It shook up the race all right, and the entire planet with it, raising questions not only about the viability of Biden’s candidacy, but his fitness for office right now.  It is hard to dimensionalize exactly how bad it was, or even find an appropriate analogy.  Imagine a baseball pitcher known for choking in big performances being handed the ball for the seventh game of the World Series and allowing home runs to the first five batters he faces.  One can imagine the pitcher’s family saying “but he improved from there”, as did Biden’s spin team at first.  Perhaps, but the damage was done.  The new phrase is that you can’t convince 50 million people to “unsee” what they have seen.

Biden took his biggest weakness, attempted to turn it on its head, and instead managed to do exactly the opposite.  It was so bad that those who were defending him (like me) quickly concluded that we were wrong, and that he must withdraw from the race.

But not everyone thinks so, including Biden himself, his family (apparently), AOC and the Congressional Black Caucus (somewhat suprisingly) and…well, who?  Often, I look at Republicans who favor Trump and ask myself how in the hell can they possibly defend him?  There are no arguments that make any sense at all.  No economic argument, no foreign policy argument, and of course no ethical argument.  But now I find myself listening to previously clear-headed Democrats espousing Biden-defense arguments that also make no sense, such as:

·        “Biden has been a good president so far.”  Well, yes, he has, but that does not mean he will continue to be one, especially if he is cognitively impaired or declining!  

·        “We owe it to Joe.”  Really?  Isn’t it the other way around?  Doesn’t he owe us an honest assessment of his capabilities?  And isn’t our goal to elect a Democrat (not to elect Biden per se), and beat Trump?

·        “The polls are wrong, remember Hillary?”  Hmm, OK, but ignore intelligence at your peril.  But if you going to critique polls, then don't, in the same breath, cite the Bloomberg and Yahoo News polls, the two that are relatively positive for Biden, and challenge the rest.  (And as for Hillary, well I don’t see Jim Comey anywhere, making 11th hour announcements that reintroduced her weakest issue.)

·        “He did well at the North Carolina and other campaign events.”  Yes, but we have four more months in which we can expect a more or less continuous flow of diminishment-indicative slips, stumbles and incoherent statements, mixed in liberally with reasonably strong performances.  Which do you think will get more attention?

·        “He won all those primaries…we should not ignore the wishes of all those voters.”  Perhaps with the debate, um, things have changed?  And that every poll since September has shown that over half the party thinks Biden is too old to run and wishes they had another choice?  Not to mention that the primaries were essentially uncontested.

·        “Joe beat Trump once; he can do it again.”  But that was 2020 Joe!  That guy could articulate a case against Trump.  The 2024 version of Joe simply can’t.  And Kamala was a prosecutor...of course she can prosecute the case against Trump.

·        “He’s got our back.”  And Kamala doesn’t?  And she’ll be able to work before 10 AM and after 4 PM on our behalf, right, and not become incoherent when struck with a common cold or the travel demands that come with the office?

·        “Kamala can’t win.”  She can’t?  Have you seen the polls that show her doing at least as well as Biden versus Trump, some slightly better?

The last two weeks have unfolded in slow-motion.  Biden was slow to defend himself; waiting an entire week (and a day) to get in front of Stephanopoulos.  He tried to set that interview up as some kind of one-off litmus test – a false standard, since it is the ongoing nature of his mental state that is at issue.  This is not the Olympics, a one-shot chance of a lifetime, rather this is a four-month slog.  Then, to quell the rising storm, Biden tried to declare it was “over” because he was staying in the race unless the “Lord Almighty comes down and tells me {to get out}.”  None of it has worked to quell the storm.

The politicians have been very careful in making their moves.  Only a handful (17 House Democrats and one Senator, as of now) have called outright for Biden to go, but clearly there are many more doubters who have yet to opine publicly.  Representative Adam Smith, one of the 17, estimated that 90 percent of his colleagues felt the same way.

Now the formidable Nancy Pelosi has spoken.  Biden may be awaiting word from the Lord Almighty, but politically Pelosi may be an even higher power.  Pelosi cleverly suggested that Biden “make up his mind” about whether to run, which sounded incongruous given that he had declared over and over his "final" decision.  What she was really saying was “not so fast, buddy,” but saying it in a way that opened a face-saving door for Biden, and giving some space for (and permission to) Democrats to continue to raise their objectives.

Biden’s performance at the post-NATO press conference was more or less typical “pre-debate Biden”: wordy, soft-spoken, with the obligatory gaffe (referring to Harris as “Vice President Trump”) -- but also quite conversant, if far from eloquent, on a wide range of foreign policy matters including Ukraine, China and Israel, and also on his views on Vice President Harris.  Essentially, the man knows his stuff, he just isn’t very good at articulating it, and that style is simply never going to improve.  It has worsened over time and will likely get even worse.  His performance was certainly far better than the debate, and better than the Stephanopoulos interview.  But it will not be sufficient to stop the bleeding.  Indeed, minutes after the press conference ended, Jim Himes became the fifteenth congressperson to call for Biden to step down (and two more have since followed Himes).

Perhaps Biden will survive.  Is it possible that he has grasped the new reality better than others in his party, and is taking a play from the Trump “no apologies” playbook?  Might this be “Access Hollywood” all over again, an apparently obvious knock-out blow that is simply not packing the wallop it once might have?  I have my doubts, but Biden hold the cards here (the delegates).  We’ll see if he is immune to the rising pressure.

The weekend will be critical.  With NATO in the rear-view mirror, the time for the reckoning has come.

Stay tuned.

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Monday, July 1, 2024

BTRTN: What Next? Should Joe Go?

 Tom with the BTRTN June 2024 Month in Review.

The 2024 presidential election to date has been characterized by its static nature.  World and domestic events erupt with regularity, in Gaza and Ukraine, at the Supreme Court and courts in New York, Georgia and Florida, in the halls of Congress, at the border, on Wall Street, in our climate and, well, seemingly everywhere.  And yet, Donald Trump and Joe Biden have been locked in a very close election, for months on end, separated at most by mere percentage points.  Even those momentous events, with their massive impacts on the state of the world and the country, have been unable to catalyze any meaningful change. 

That might still be true after the epic meltdown of Joe Biden, the furious lying and dark spiritedness of Donald Trump, and the illumination of their vast differences in worldview and policy at the already-historic June 27 CNN debate.  We do not know as yet.  But what we'll learn over the next week will make all the difference in how the aftermath takes shape – and answer the enormous question of whether Biden should stay in the race or withdraw.

Biden surely put on the worst performance of the televised debate era, which has been around since 1960.  He was tentative, hoarse and, at many junctures, incoherent, weak on defense and no better in articulating his most popular policies.  There were many lowlights, including an early-on interminable, stumble-and-then-silence sequence (actually, it was 8 seconds) that finally ended with a nonsensical non sequitur on Medicare.  Perhaps most egregious was his performance on abortion, his best issue, in which he failed to note that the vast majority of Americans supported Roe v. Wade (instead he referenced its support by constitutional lawyers); failed to dimensionalize the pain that has resulted in the Dobbs era; inexplicably pivoted from abortion, his best issue, to immigration, his worst; and failed to mention abortion (or January 6) at all in his closing statement.  And, of course, he rather consistently reinforced his biggest negative, which is that he is old and perceived by many, even in his own party, to not being up to the job.

Trump, for his part, did nothing to reassure voters that he has evolved in any way.  While he did not interrupt Biden (the “mics off” rule doubtlessly helping him to avoid his worst instincts), he was still the raging victim, defending the January 6 rioters and insisting the 2020 election was rigged, spouting utter nonsense, including repeated suggestions that America under Biden is violent, disrespected, in decline and a joke.  He was indeed vigorous, but also semi-crazed, and those looking for some semblance of presidential temperament and aptitude walked away empty-handed.  And the lies!  Biden got it right in his remarks after the debate; it was not clear if Trump said a single thing that was accurate.

In the few days since, the various constituencies have coalesced into competing camps.  From virtually the outset, the national media and the pundits, led by The New York Times, David Axelrod and James Carville, echoed by many others, have called for Biden to step down.  Democratic politicians, on the other hand, have laid low, conceding that Biden had a bad night but sticking by their man.  In this they are simply following Biden himself, who quickly made energetic campaign appearances in New York and North Carolina, full of vigor, self-deprecation and earnest defense of his governing abilities, if not his physical condition and debating skills.  Donors have been alternately moaning, weighing in, and waiting to see how it all plays out.

The debate impact is actually a three-part drama.  There is the debate itself, which was watched, at least in part, by 51 million viewers on TV (and more live on the Internet).  The second part is the impact of the clips of the debate, where the worst bits (“…we finally beat Medicare!”) have already been seen millions of times on social media, a number still growing.  Part three is the media coverage, which has been universally and relentlessly negative to Biden and weighted to evaluations of his performance rather than Trump’s.  In obvious ways, parts two and three are even worse than the debate itself.  Biden’s good moments – and he did get better as it went along, albeit from a disastrous start – are long lost, and Trump’s general awfulness has been  overshadowed.

The net effect is that it will take days for the debate impressions to harden, and thus the various “snap” polls may not capture the full extent of the impact.  I would not pay too much attention to polls that were fielded on June 28/29/30; we need to wait until it has all sunk in.

What next?

What everyone should be waiting for are the views (and verdict) of the most important segment of all:  the voters.  And that will come in the next week, both in public polls that we will all see, and in private polls that the Biden team almost certainly already had in place, to measure pre/post-debate impacts.

Before making any decisions, the Biden team and anyone in a position to influence its thinking must first look at the impact of the debate on Biden’s approval rating and the national election polls (both the “two way” polls which pit Biden against Trump and the “five-way” which include the minor candidates Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Jill Stein and Cornel West).  If Biden has taken a substantial blow – say, a five-point or more drop in his approval rating, from the pre-debate level of roughly 40% to 35% or lower, and the gap with Trump widens to five points or more, our view is that Biden should step down.  If the effect is more marginal, a point or two, he can continue his quest to write off the debate as a bad night, akin to those suffered by Reagan and Obama in their first reelection debates, and move on.  (The race is currently more or less a dead heat.  Obviously, if swing state polling is available or commissioned, that would be important, too.  Public swing state polling has been sporadic at best.)

Many think that Biden is intractable, and under no circumstances will he withdraw.  That might very well be true.  But the worse the polls are, the more intense the pressure he will feel, and the cumulative effect of donors, wise old hands (say, Obama, the Clintons, Al Gore, John Kerry, Chuck Schumer, Hakeem Jeffries, etc.) and esteemed (by Joe Biden) members of the media (say, Thomas Friedman and Joe Scarborough) could be consequential.  Such a decision will be made by Biden in consultation with his inner circle of family (foremost Jill Biden and Biden's sister Valerie) and the most trusted of his long-time advisors (Kauffman, Klain, Richetti, Donilon, Dunn and Bauer).  But if the numbers are indeed dire, he has a grave responsibility to the party and to the American people, to confront directly the question, is he still the best hope to defeat Donald Trump -- and conclude the answer is no.

What then?

Keep in mind, an alternate candidate will only arise with Biden’s cooperation.  There will be no challenges to him if he chooses to continue.  It would be political suicide to any aspiring candidate to buck him publicly, and political homicide on Biden’s prospects versus Trump.  While the convention rules do contain language that would allow pledged delegates to go elsewhere, this avenue is unthinkable.

If Biden stepped down voluntarily, the presidential selection process might resemble political life in the decades and centuries before 1972.  In that year the parties basically turned over the nominating process to the public via a full set of state-by-state primaries in which candidates could accumulate delegates and perhaps march into the convention with enough in hand to be the presumptive first-ballot nominee.  Before 1972, primaries were few and more seen as testing grounds.  Once John F. Kennedy won the Wisconsin primary (after winning in neighboring New Hampshire), thereby proving that a Catholic could win in a Protestant stronghold, the remaining half-dozen primaries were largely irrelevant (and at times won by favorite sons and the "non-committed" line on the ballot, to maximize convention leverage).  Old style political conventions were the hotbed of deal-making, tickets created through the clouds of the legendary smoke-filled rooms, while the nation waited breathlessly to see who emerged in the balloting, which at times went on for multiple rounds and even days.

I suspect if Biden stepped down he would recall his talk of a “transition presidency,” mouth words about “accomplishing what I set out to do" and "the need for a new generation of leadership."  There would be  sentences about "focusing my attention on the issues at hand" such as Gaza and immigration.  

He would also say glowing things about Vice President Kamala Harris.  But he would also surely release all of his delegates and say that the party deserves a chance, at the convention, to choose its standard bearer.  This would leave the door open for new candidates.

Many fear that unleashing such a process might lead to chaos, or unintended consequences.  There are risks, to be sure.  But there are significant upsides to this approach.  The focus of the election would suddenly not be on Biden’s frailties and vexing, troubling issues (for him) such as Gaza and immigration, or Trump’s trials and dark madness, but instead on a fresh slate of candidates, who would generally be supportive, of course, of Democratic policies (and more articulate about them), but could also part with Biden on those troubling issues.  The sheer excitement and novelty of this free-for-all, the breaking of a tired tradition, and the opportunity, finally, for choice, would surely ignite the Democrats.  Remembering that over half the party wanted Biden to not run even before the debates, it is hard to argue the sudden offering of a choice could be a misstep.  It is plainly what the people want, now more than ever.

The usual suspects are being rolled out, including, perhaps at the top, popular Governor Gretchen Whitmer of swing state Michigan.  She resides in the heart of the northern industrial belt of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that were critical both to Trump’s win in 2016 (when he flipped them and punctured the myth of the “Blue Wall”) and Biden’s in 2020 (when he won by flipping them back).  Gavin Newsom is also a high profile potential entrant.  With Whitmer (age 52), Newsom (56) and Harris (59), suddenly age would become a weapon to use against Trump, and the future would have abruptly arrived, personified by the candidate.

Other names that will come to the fore are Governors Andy Beshear of Kentucky and Roy Cooper of North Carolina, both succeeding in red and nearly-red states, and Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, all succeeding in red or swing states.  Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, who outperformed Harris in the 2020 race, could throw their hats in.

Fears that Democrats would continue to lose Black voters (if Harris lost) ignores the very real possibility that their numbers would be easily overtaken by the return of young voters, the transformation of “double haters” into “single haters” (of Trump), and tip the scales of the persuadable middle, who finally might have someone to get excited about.

All of the contenders would have six weeks to barnstorm America and introduce themselves to the electorate (and to donors).  Some will do well; others will bomb (see: Ron DeSantis).  The convention would be epic, one for the ages, a reality show that Donald Trump could not possibly match.  The ratings would be through the roof, as America would be riveted by the contenders' impassioned speeches, the real-time uncertainty, various unscripted happenings and even scripted ones such as Joe Biden’s valedictory appearance and the wisdom of the Obamas and the Clintons, which would take on new significance.  Then would come the balloting process, a Super Bowl-esque night with ratings to match, and then, a Vice Presidential choice worthy of a century ago, with the promise of a VP slot dangled to those with delegates to offer to seal the deal.

Then the nation could watch the same old Donald Show at the GOP convention, and not help but notice the incredible contrast between a vigorous party teeming with young leaders looking to the future, and a dark, diabolical grievance- and retribution-ridden charlatan rooted in the past.  The Democratic candidate would head into the fall with momentum, perhaps even a lead in the polls, which would force Trump to agree to a debate.  And we would be back, staring at two podiums again, waiting to see how the combatants fare.

Now all of that is certainly a “best case scenario” for the Democrats – things could certainly go off the rails.  The principal problem with all of those potential candidates is that they are not truly battle-tested on a national stage, although some had a level of experience in 2020. 

And again, this scenario should only be explored if the debate dramatically changes Biden’s electorate prospects.  If that cannot be demonstrated, there is little reason to change horses.  If the voting public can absorb the very worst of Biden and shrug it off – as the GOP shrugged off Trump’s Access Hollywood tape – then the debate will rightly fade into history, and Biden’s “back on the saddle” approach will be the correct choice.

Stay tuned.


KEY METRICS

Joe Biden’s approval rating in June remained at 39%, and his net negative further expanded to -18 percentage points.  His issue ratings were also relatively unchanged.

The generic ballot is once again a dead heat between the Democrats and the GOP.

The "Bidenometer" increased slightly to +35, driven by a drop in gas prices and a rise in the stock market.   The +35 level means the economy is in far better shape under Biden than the one he inherited from Trump (see below).


















BIDENOMETER

The Bidenometer is a BTRTN proprietary economic measure that was designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.

The Bidenometer measure is comprised of five indicative data points:  the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP.  The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.

The +35 for June 2024 means that, on average, the five measures are 35% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +35, the economy is performing markedly better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.  Unemployment is much lower, consumer confidence is higher, the Dow is much higher, the GDP is MUCH higher.  Only the price of gas is in a negative direction (higher), which is a proxy for general inflation.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, under Clinton the measure ended at +55.  It declined from +55 to +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery.  Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it.  Now we have seen it move upward from 0 to +35 under Biden.

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Friday, June 28, 2024

BTRTN: Democrats at DefCon One… Biden Has an Epic Fail, and Panic Ensues

It was the worst-case scenario: both candidates validated our gravest worries about their liabilities. Biden appeared old, weak, and muddled, and Trump is more of a pathological liar than ever. God help us.

Well, that was about as depressing as it gets.

In the first Presidential Debate of the 2024 cycle, Joe Biden had an epic fail.

Biden had endless phlegm in his throat. He was tentative at times, rushed at others. Sentences trailed off. He stuttered. He paused, appearing to lose his thread. He droned in a monotone. The timbre of his voice was thin. He spoke in lists, not in terms of vision and passion. He appeared shriveled and diminished behind his podium.

He let Donald Trump put him on the defensive, and he was not able to fight back.

No question: Donald Trump was far more vigorous and more energized than Joe Biden. It’s the oldest saw: debates are decided by visual appearance, not by policy discussion or political philosophy.

By that measure, Donald Trump won the debate by a mile.

The problem: Donald Trump was lying every time he opened his mouth.

Trump was so extreme, so exaggerated, and so buffoonish in his claims about the wonders of own Presidency -- and so absurd in his egregious accusations about Joe Biden -- that moderate Americans likely saw him clearly for the carnival barker that he is.  Trump did not come close to winning the debate.  Biden lost it.

CNN did nothing to rein in the madness. Jake Tapper and Dana Bash let Donald Trump fling utterly unsupported assertions for the entire night. They abdicated any responsibility for ensuring that assertions made on their network have a basis in reality.  

All three parties to this debacle – Trump, Biden, and CNN – succeeded only in measuring the degraded state of our political dialog.

The evening created grave concern among Democrats that Joe Biden is not hearty enough to be President, and yet also undoubtedly raised concern among independents that Donald Trump does not have the honesty, character, demeanor, or integrity to be President.

Suddenly, all bets are off.

CNN’s Jon King started the post-debate analysis by saying that his phone was lighting up all night long with major Democrats in full panic, screaming Def Con One and calling for Biden to step aside. Van Jones, the staunchest defender of Joe Biden in television news, damn near threw in the towel, acknowledging that there would be calls for Biden to “take another path.”

My God, what a mess. Don’t ask me who won last night.

All I know is that we all lost.

 

Joe Biden is a good man. He has had a successful first term in office by many measures, achieving important bipartisan legislation at home and building vital alliances to sustain Ukraine in its war with Russia. His economic policies have threaded a needle of tamping inflation without triggering recession.

Last night, when Joe Biden was able to articulate his positions and policies, they were sound.  Compared to Trump, who literally constructed a fantasy world of utterly preposterous assertions and brazen deceits, Biden was grounded, solid, informed and truthful.

But the instances in which Biden was forceful, compelling, concise, and clear in defense of his policies were in the minority.

Everyone knows how this game works.

Presidential debates have always been a high wire act: candidates are keenly aware of the existential danger of a single gaffe, and that in a single, brilliant moment, one candidate can mortally wound his opponent.  On October 6, 1976, Gerald Ford said “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.” Poof! So long, Jerry.  Ronald Reagan said “there you go again” to Jimmy Carter, and made light of Walter Mondale’s “age and inexperience.” Neither recovered.

It only takes one moment of plutonium-grade toxicity in a presidential debate to bring down a candidacy.

Sadly, it must be reported that Joe Biden’s performance last night was not just one moment. It was an entire evening… it was the Chernobyl of Presidential debates. He was simply unable to do anything to shut down the fire hose of bellicose, brazenly deceitful self-aggrandizement flowing from the former President. He let Trump define the debate, and Trump defined a fantasy world in which his Presidency was perfect, and Joe Biden has ruined all the greatness of the Trump administration.

Trump could not contain his own need to phrase everything in the most extreme form.  He could not escape his own personal psychosis of projecting each of his own failings onto his opponent. The two classics of projection: Trump literally said that “everything Joe Biden says is a lie,”  and “what this man has done is absolutely criminal.” Trump grew more brazen as the night went on, ever needing to one-up his own bile of loathing for Biden, literally making up completely unsupportable claims. Here is but a sampler of Trump's deranged assertions:

“Joe Biden is the worst President in the history of the country.”

“He wants our country to be destroyed.”

“If he wins this election, we won’t have a country left.”

“He wants to raise your taxes by four times. He wants to raise everybody’s taxes by four times.”

“Biden takes money from China.”

“So that means he can take the life of the baby in the ninth month and even after birth, because some states – Democrat-run – take it after birth…So he’s in – he’s willing to, as we say, rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month and kill the baby.”

“His military policies are insane. We are closer to WW III than ever.”

“I had the highest approval rating for veterans, taking care of the V.A. He has the worst.”

“And yet, during my four years, I had the best environmental numbers ever. And my top environmental people gave me that statistic just before I walked on the stage, actually.”

“Ukraine would have never started if I was President.”

“Our veterans and our soldiers can’t stand this guy…They think he’s the worst commander in chief, if that’s what you call him, that we’ve ever had…And they like me more than just about any of them. And that’s based on every single bit of information.”

“We are a failing nation.”

When Trump was reminded of some of his worst quotes (for example, that those who served in World War II were “suckers and losers,” or that “Hitler did some very good things”), Trump simply claimed that the quotes in question were made up.

The more bombastic, irresponsible, reckless, and foolish Trump’s character assassination went effectively unchallenged, the more Trump doubled down.  Trump sensed that the evening was going his way and remained generally composed, never succumbing to the childish screaming rants and interruptions that characterized his 2020 debates. But his constant hectoring of Biden, and the utterly unfounded charges of corruption, criminality, failure, and incompetence reinforce his own negative narrative as a nasty, deceitful, hopelessly self-involved delusional. Again: Trump did not win. Biden lost.

 

Whether it is fair or not isn’t really the issue. The problem is that Biden’s performance profoundly reinforced the single greatest concern most Americans carry about Biden: that an 81-year-old man – and this 81-year-old man in particular -- cannot handle the brutal rigors of the Presidency of the United States.

When any debate gaffe or weakness appears to reinforce a core concern, its impact is multiplied as if on a Richter Scale. When an entire evening reinforces that concern, a narrative forms. In the echo chamber of the 24-hour news cycle, the narrative is repeated so frequently and so intensely that it takes on its own reality. It becomes a snowball racing down a mountainside, gaining both mass and velocity.

For the next week to ten days, Joe Biden is going to be taking many, many calls from Democrats. The calls for him to step aside will grow louder.

Moreover, the media will find the story line irresistible: video clips of Biden’s worst moments will populate the airwaves for weeks. Pundits will speculate: which Democratic leaders could convince Joe to step aside? What process could the Democrats use to choose an alternative candidate? Rules for an open convention will be discussed. Campaign donations may sag, which will pour kerosene on the fire.

Then, it will become the story.

Black Democrats may speculate that if Biden steps aside, the nomination should automatically default to VP Kamala Harris. Black Democrats may have their loyalty tested when they discover that very few people in the party share that view.

As potential names are floated, polls will be taken that will show that younger potential Democratic candidates – Gavin Newsom, Gretchen Whitmer, Amy Klobuchar – are much more likely to beat Trump than Biden. If Biden has not reached a decision to step aside, such polls could become overwhelming.

The bottom line: after a night like this, it becomes very hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

You can expect that Joe Biden is going to spend a great deal of time on the phone in the next week. He’s a tough guy, a fighter. He’s likely to try to toss it off as an off-night.

But Democrats pride themselves on being the party of facts, objectivity, and reality. And the new reality is that Joe Biden’s re-election bid was just dealt a devastating and potentially existential blow.

Yes, presidential debates do change history.

I’m a Joe Biden fan. Readers of BTRTN know that I’ve spent months telling readers to stop whining and get to work to re-elect Joe Biden.

But above that, I am a political realist. The real story tonight, for anyone who could see it, was not Joe Biden. It was that we absolutely must defeat Donald Trump in November.  The man is unstable, delusional, morally bankrupt, cruel, and yes, very capable of destroying our democracy.

Re-electing Joe Biden is not how I’d phrase the objective.

Our objective is to defeat Donald Trump.

If last night made clear that someone else may have a better chance of beating Donald Trump than Joe Biden, then maybe this debate was not the utter disaster that it feels like at 12:38 a.m. on Friday, June 28.

We should all allow a few days to pass rather than race to a rash decision. Let’s hear what Joe Biden has to say. Let’s see polls of how people reacted to this debate.

Then let’s be fair, and let’s be smart. There’s a right answer.  We must never be afraid to find it.

 

 

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Tuesday, June 4, 2024

BTRTN: Trump is Now a Convicted Felon -- What Will Be the Impact on the Election?

Tom with the May 2024 BTRTN Month in Review, on the conviction and the state of the 2024 presidential election.

MAY 2024

On the face of it, long before the trial began, it seemed rather obvious that Donald Trump had conspired with various sordid players to concoct and execute a scheme to hide his affair with porn star Stormy Daniels from the electorate in the days before the 2016 election.  The issue was whether he would be convicted of that crime in a court of law.  The feds had chosen not to pursue the case; a felony conviction required a novel legal theory linking two cover-up-related crimes, one at the state level (the financial deception), the other at the federal (the election deception); the case would have to rely heavily on the testimony of a convicted liar, Michael Cohen; it would take only one juror to gum up the works; and, of course, the prosecution would have to overcome Trump’s notorious lifelong “Teflon Don” ability to avoid serious legal consequences for his actions.  Many predicted, right up until the verdict was read, that once again Trump would slither away unscathed – and with it the only chance to hang the term “convicted felon” on him before Election Day.

But that was not to be, and on Thursday, May 30 at 5:08 PM Eastern time, Trump became the first president to be convicted of a crime, on no less than 34 counts of financial chicanery.  The prosecution put together a meticulous case and presented it in a strategically sound method, holding Cohen back from testifying until a parade of other, more credible witnesses, including David Pecker, Hope Hicks and various accountants (and Stormy Daniels herself), established the basic facts with ample documentation.  Cohen’s story, when he told it, hewed carefully to that framework, reinforcing it, and his additions to it -- necessary for a conviction -- thus seemed credible.  The judge enforced court discipline, controlling Trump’s behavior, while issuing rulings that were balanced rather evenly for and against the prosecution and defense.  The jury demonstrated keen attention to the proceedings, seemingly meticulous in their deliberations, yet delivering a relatively swift and certainly decisive verdict.  Even Trump’s lawyers, perhaps hamstrung by some of Trump’s own “suggestions,” did the best they could in defending the indefensible.  It was, despite future efforts to toss it out on various flimsy grounds, in many ways a model trial.

While sentencing remains (in July) and appeals are a certainty (and would be decided well after the election), the damage has been done.  Now it’s up to us.  As unprecedented as a conviction of a former president is, what is even more noteworthy is Trump’s status as the presumptive GOP nominee in the upcoming election.  It is utterly unthinkable that any of his predecessors could have survived such a tawdry scandal.  Obviously, JFK and many other presidents and presidential contenders were guilty of affairs, but most governed or ran in a time when the press turned a blind eye to such matters, so there was no need to cover them up.  Those who lived in the more modern era paid the price, from Gary Hart to Mark Sanford to a host of others in between, and Bill Clinton’s reputation certainly has taken a hit for his indiscretions.  But Trump’s behavior has been outright abominable; he is simply a serial philanderer and abuser, and his complete indifference to the concepts of monogamy and business ethics has now (finally) resulted in two civil convictions and now a criminal one.  The reckoning is well underway.  

And yet, the Republican Party not only tolerates him, they embrace him, enable him, hold him up as a symbol and follow his lead.  His grip on the party has never been tighter.  Those who oppose him are either shown the door (Lynn Cheney leading the rather sparse parade) or return to the fold on bended knee (Kevin McCarthy, for one, and now Nikki Haley).  And, of course, they have nominated him, despite the fact that his only real campaign issue is the myth of the stolen election, his only motive is to avoid jail time from his federal offenses, and his only compass is his own fate, fame and fortune.  Most Republican officials, and certainly the leadership, know that he is a sham, but are unable to find the moral courage to unite and destroy him – and save their party.

So, there is no discussion of removing him from the ticket.  Supposedly God-fearing men like Mike Johnson, who should be condemning him, are instead mimicking his endless beefs about the unfairness of the charges and his trial. 

Have they no decency?

And what must Mitch McConnell be thinking?  McConnell is the one who had the absolute best opportunity to rid us all of this heinous disease.  Had McConnell backed the second Trump impeachment (and the follow-on vote to bar him from holding future office), this would be over.  Had McConnell voted in a manner consistent with his speech at the time, which condemned Trump even while sparing him, and managed to bring along another ten Senate GOP colleagues, Trump would be disgraced and finished, relegated to the footnotes of history, and facing multiple federal charges with no power to avoid them.  But his political life continues, and the federal charges are in peril.

So, down to brass tacks.  What is the current state of the election, and how might this conviction play out?


2024 ELECTION

Nate Cohn of The New York Times finally got around to admitting something we have known for nine months – that the Trump/Biden race is much closer than commonly believed.  What he failed to note is that he himself is the primary culprit in promulgating that belief.  His relentless braying about Biden’s swing state gap – which is real but not large and far from unassailable -- has been demoralizing to Democrats since last fall.  I know because I hear it all the time and have been pushing back more or less continuously against the “all is lost” narrative.

The actual facts are quite simple.  Biden is more or less even with Trump, or within cab-hailing distance of him, in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and if Biden wins all three, he wins the election.  There, that does not seem so hard, does it?

It is difficult to measure the effect of Cohn’s negativity on Democratic voters (and donors), but it is hard to argue it has been a good thing.  The reporting last fall caused David Axelrod, who should have known better, to call for a reconsideration of Biden’s presence on the ticket; non-stop handwringing among the faithful; and, who knows, maybe a few thousand thick wallets being left unopened.

The most riveting new news in Cohn’s analysis – something he should have known and shared last fall – is that, across the swing states, among registered voters who actually voted in 2020, Biden leads by +2 points.  Among the others – that is, registered voters who did not vote in 2020, whom Cohn designated as “less engaged” voters, Trump led by +14.  This, of course, demonstrates that Trump is counting on a group of potential voters who may not ever make it to the polls in 2024, or at least will likely do so in lesser proportion than Biden supporters.  This is a very significant finding.

The national polls show an ever-tightening race, although that tightening (now down to just about a half-a-point gap) is occurring at an excruciatingly slow pace, seemingly one turn of the screw per month, at least in the two-way polls.  In the five-way polls, which include various third-party candidates, who may not even end up being on the ballot in every state, the Biden/Trump gap is slightly larger, about two points, indicating those other candidates are having slightly more of an impact on Biden than Trump, although even that impact is very close.  Again, baked into those numbers, which are based on polling of registered voters, is the "engaged/non-engaged" split that Cohn identified, which suggests actual likely potential voters are favoring Biden.











The swing states remain close as well, especially Wisconsin and Michigan which are more or less a dead heat, and Pennsylvania where Biden trails by just three percentage points.  The other states are leaning toward Trump, but all are reachable.  The Nevada gap (7 points) is one of those “average of polls” numbers that mask a range of poll outcomes:  one poll has Trump and Biden even, while the other two polls have Trump at +9 and +13.  These types of variations are hard to reconcile.











Our verdict:  it’s a close race!  (Duh.)  But – Biden is certainly doing better than the Cohn-driven headlines.

We have been noting the fantastic number of potential “catalysts” that could, in the next five months, shake up what has been a relatively static race, including the trajectory of the economy, the Israel/Hamas conflict, the candidates’ health, the debates, Supreme Court decisions and so many more.  But perhaps the leading potential catalyst is the outcome of the hush money case.  Now that that has occurred, we all wait with bated breath to see whether the guilty verdict will change the race dynamics in any meaningful way.  It is too early to tell definitively.

There were a few tidbits from polling conducted before the trial ended, revealing that 6-7% of Trump supporters would abandon him if there was a guilty verdict.  This confirmed similar results from last fall.  That may not sound like much -- and in fact it is not much, on an absolute basis.  However, in the context of a very close election, it is an enormous result; if in fact it materializes, one that could tip the race in Biden’s favor, since 6-7% of Trump supporters roughly translates to at least a three percentage point change in the race, and perhaps as much at six if they all flipped to Biden.

There have been four national polls since the verdict, which is still early, since there has been very little time for the “reaction” impact – including the media coverage and the spin -- to sink in.  But the average of those polls indicates a slight movement toward Biden, enough, in fact, to put him slightly ahead of Trump in terms of the actual numbers.  (Both the pre- and post- polling margins are best described as a “dead heat” from a national perspective.  Keep in mind that because of the inherent bias of the Electoral College to the GOP, Biden has to be up by +2 to +3 points nationally for the race to be truly considered even.




 

More tidbits have come in two other surveys taken right after the verdict.  A Morning Consult survey revealed that 54% of voters approve of the Trump conviction, and 8% of Trump supporters want him to drop his White House bid.  And a Reuters survey taken after the verdict indicated at 10% of Republican registered voters are less likely to vote for Trump following the conviction.  Perhaps even more significantly, 25% of Independent registered voters said the conviction made them less likely to support Trump (though 18% said “more likely” and the balance said no change).

There have been no post-conviction polls in the swing state.

All of these numbers suggest that, on the margin, the conviction could hurt Trump materially.  “On the margin” is the operative phrase.  I am frequently asked about the impact of this, that or the other thing on the election outcome.  Will Biden’s fundraising advantage make a difference?  Will the SCOTUS mifepristone ruling flip some votes?  Will Trump’s VP choice matter?  How about if the Fed announces a rate cut?  Abortion on the ballot in Arizona?

In this election, the answer is: “of course” – anything that has the potential to shake a few voters towards or away from one candidate or the other rises to “game changer” level.  And the early evidence this conviction could indeed nudge voters, if not Biden’s way, then at least away from Trump.  More polls will give further direct evidence on the race.

It is non-sensical to make the argument that the conviction will help Trump, as the GOP has been spinning.  Sure, it riled up the base and has given a boost to small donor donations.  But Trump does not need more votes from MAGA-land.  He needs them from persuadable swing-state voters, and they seem to be exactly the ones who are most affected – negatively -- by the verdict. The storyline that Trump is a convicted felon will have long tentacles, in ways we cannot anticipate.  Who knew that the state of Washington has a law on the books that prevents convicted felons from appearing on the ballot?  And there will be no Election Day coverage of Trump going to a ballot booth to cast his own vote – his home state of Florida does not allow a felon that right.

Stay tuned.


KEY METRICS

Joe Biden’s approval rating in March dropped to just under the 40% line, and his net negative further expanded to -17 percentage points.  His issue ratings were also relatively unchanged.

The generic ballot continues to be a dead heat between the Democrats and the GOP.

The "Bidenometer" remained at +33, driven by split and modest movement by the five economic indicators.  But the +33 level means the economy is in far better shape under Biden than the one he inherited from Trump (see below).



 

BIDENOMETER

The Bidenometer is a BTRTN proprietary economic measure that was designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.

The Bidenometer measure is comprised of five indicative data points:  the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP.  The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.

The +33 for May 2024 means that, on average, the five measures are 33% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +33, the economy is performing markedly better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.  Unemployment is much lower, consumer confidence is higher, the Dow is much higher, the GDP is MUCH higher.  Only the price of gas is higher, which is a proxy for general inflation.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, under Clinton the measure ended at +55.  It declined from +55 to +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery.  Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it.  Now we have seen it move upward from 0 to +33 under Biden.

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